The federal government and all states have laws in place to address identity theft. Identity theft occurs when someone assumes your identity to make financial and other transactions. It's a form of fraud, punishable by up to 15 years in prison under federal law. Punishment increases when identity theft overlaps with other crimes, like mail fraud.
State Laws Differ
Although identity theft is a crime in every state, 29 states and the District of Columbia have even harsher legislation. These states have added restitution penalties into their identity theft laws. Anyone convicted of stealing your identity in these jurisdictions must also pay you back for any money you lost, including legal fees and the costs of repairing your credit and your good name. Congress passed legislation making identity theft a federal crime in 1998.
How Does It Happen?
Identity theft occurs when someone steals your identifying information, such as your Social Security number, to make purchases and apply for credit in your name. Some thieves sort through trash to find discarded bills and statements that might include your bank account number or Social Security number. They may watch over your shoulder as you tap in your PIN at an ATM.
The Internet offers an additional way for identity thieves to gain your personal information. "Phishing" involves emails from thieves, pretending to be your bank, a credit card company, or another institution that you regularly do business with. The emails ask for your Social Security number or bank or credit account information so you can connect with an "official" site. However, the site is phony.
Thieves Pretend to Be You
With access to your Social Security number, thieves can apply for credit cards (or even mortgages) in your name. They typically supply an address other than your real one so you don't receive the statements. They typically don't pay the credit card bills, so your credit score can take a significant hit.
Thieves can pose as you at the bank and request a new debit card or order new checks. They can then use these things to access your bank accounts. They can give your name and identifying information if they're charged with crimes, so you may find you have a criminal record for something you never did.
You Can Recover
If you're a victim of identity theft, you can report it to the federal government. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is obligated to investigate and will also alert law enforcement in your state. An attorney can help you make a complaint to the FTC. A lawyer can also help you repair your credit history and your reputation, such as by having false criminal convictions removed from your record.
A Consumer Law Attorney Can Help
The law surrounding identity theft is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a consumer law attorney.